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‘Your role models don’t necessarily need to have the same skin colour as you, but they need to understand the importance of diversity’

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Mayer Brown’s Joseph Otoo on being a black solicitor in the City

During his undergraduate law studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and later his law school professional postgrad at The University of Law, Mayer Brown senior associate Joseph Otoo had a lot of black aspiring lawyer friends.

“There were lots of different types of people on the course,” Otoo tells Legal Cheek Careers. “But when I started working as a lawyer, the number of black people around me dropped off noticeably.”

Now a solicitor advocate and senior associate working in the constructing & engineering and international arbitration practices of Mayer Brown’s London office, Otoo had always wanted to be a lawyer. “I wanted to be in a position where I could use the skills I had to impact on people, not just individuals but on commerce, business and economics,” he reminisces on his schooling years.

But he wasn’t a star at A-level. Options for top universities limited, Otoo found himself at a non-Russell Group university and knew his training contract hunt would be made tougher because of this. But people grow in different ways. He says:

“Academically things got better for me when I got to university. While I was at Manchester Metropolitan, I got a scholarship to do a year-long student exchange programme at prestigious University of Copenhagen, which I knew would differentiate me, and I ended up getting a first class. I don’t think my CV got as much traction as it would have done had I been to a top-class university, but I just tried to be ambitious and work with what I had.”

Following what Otoo calls his five top tips for success — working hard, taking opportunities, being ambitious, seeking out people who will help you and not being afraid to ask questions — saw him score a London training contract. He qualified in 2008, and has been practising at Mayer Brown for one-and-a-half-years now, having previously been an associate in the energy & natural resources group at Reed Smith LLP.

Otoo applauds his firm’s graduate recruitment teams, who want to attract students outside of the Russell Group. It makes business sense, he argues:

“Firms want the best students, but you won’t necessarily get the best students from a narrow set of universities. I think it’s better to also look at progression — if you went to a state school and didn’t get into the best university but still worked very hard to achieve good marks and worked a job during your studies, this shows initiative, grit and determination.”

Like their embrace of non-Russell Group grads, Otoo takes an interest in law firms’ approach to ethnic diversity. Despite a sea change in attitudes in recent years, the profession is still criticised for its lack of black lawyers in its top ranks.

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It’s something Otoo has seen first-hand. “The number of black lawyers drops off more and more at every level,” he says. “Things have improved. However, throughout my career and with a few exceptions, I have noticed that I am frequently the only black person in the room.I look outside at the city and it’s full of diverse people, then I’ll walk into a meeting room and frequently there’s no other black people around me.”

It’s something Otoo wants to change. Striving for partnership, Otoo says he wants to be a role model to show young, black talent that reaching the top of a firm is possible.

The importance of role models cannot be overstated, he says, because seeing the successes of those that have walked in your shoes can only encourage you to take the next step. Being a visible face for law students and young lawyers is one of the reasons Otoo co-chairs Mayer Brown’s ethnic diversity network, FUSION, which he describes as “a comprehensive network of lawyers, support staff and business staff”. He is involved in graduate recruitment at the firm, and enjoys talking to work experience students. The next step for FUSION, he hopes, is reaching local schools, to show the children being a black lawyer is attainable.

Though Otoo thinks giving black lawyers a platform to share their experiences is vital, it doesn’t mean all your role models have to be the same ethnicity as you.

“Early on in my career I looked up to a number of lawyers who weren’t black but were supporters of diversity and understood how important diversity is,” Otoo explains. “People recognised my talent and nurtured me, and the important thing I took from that is when looking for mentors, don’t approach people just because they look like you, but approach people who you identify with. I have met and continue to meeta lot of supportive people, from various backgrounds.”

These reflections are particularly timely given that October is Black History Month.

This celebration reaffirms the contribution people of colour have made, and continue to make, to the UK every day, Otoo says. This reaffirmation happens every time lawyers head down to Mayer Brown’s restaurant area, which features a picture noticeboard of black entrepreneurs, musicians, judges, lawyers, and more, whose contributions are definitely worth celebrating.

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